There are few things as frustrating and as infuriating as another parent telling you what your kid should be able to do. Some friends of ours are presently potty-training their child (and doing a bang-up job, too). Another friend of theirs told them that, if their child is “truly ready,” the process should only take a few days. I sincerely believe that this person was trying to communicate some positivity, but it just came across (to me) as another parent trying to force an opportunity to boast about how great she is at parenting. In all likelihood, it was both of these things. Two birds with one boulder and all that.
Any time a parent offers an anecdote about things his or her kid has done, it can only have one of three outcomes. It can be frustrating if your own kid doesn’t live up to the possibly made-up accomplishment of some other faceless child. It can be confidence-boosting if your own kid exceeds the expectations set by the comparison.* Or it can be taken with the tiniest of grains of salt that it deserves and simply ignored. In the two most-likely of three outcomes, there is no benefit to offering the story. But tell them, parents do.
It is especially easy, when mired in our kids’ development, to lose perspective. Any advice we give comes with the caveat that our knowledge is based almost entirely on an incredibly small sample size, usually just a handful of kids out of the billions of children that have ever lived. It disallows the possibility that kids learn differently, that motivators can vary, and that parenting ought to be tailored to the child.
There’s a divide between what advice we find useful and what advice we find meddling. A good dentist, park, diaper brand, way to make baby food, or sales on baby things and we’re grateful and engaged. What our kids should be doing or shouldn’t be doing, and we’re closed-off and detached. One parent of one child offering one story should be taken as what it is, and nothing more. It’s color commentary, not fortune-telling.
My mother, during one of her Judgmental Talks, once asked me why we weren’t treating our two kids the same way. It was anathema to her that we treat our children differently because they’re different pre-people with different needs. And I don’t even mean because of the three-year age gap (an eternity in the pre-K crowd). The subject was the measures we needed to take to help Jack through his sleep training, and why they differed from those we utilized when sleep training Joshua. She could not grasp that we were doing things differently because our two kids needed different approaches.
Parents are some of the worst people on the planet. We become consumed by and with the lives of our kids, subordinating our own existence to further theirs. Whether we’ll admit it or not, we’re all resentful of the loud, tiny psychopaths we’ve allowed to hijack our lives. While our love for them may be boundless, and certainly greater than any resentment we may feel, those two feelings are not mutually exclusive; they can, and do, co-exist. Our reconciliation of the two usually involves critiques costumed as advice, a way for us to judge others and make ourselves feel better while being unassailable because we’re “just trying to help.” It’s just awful. Our resentfulness is a slow burn, but it burns hot.
Why else do we relish those rare moments when we escape our kids’ clutches to go on a date, or to just spend some time together? Why else do we look longingly at the liquor cabinet at two in the afternoon? Why else do we sigh when our kids ask for the thirtieth time in a day to read the same story or play the same game? It’s because raising very young children requires putting much of your personal growth and development on hold.
In my own circumstances, my wife has to work out-of-town during the week, meaning I’m caring for the boys on my own for four or five days at a time. I’m not complaining about that, as no amount of complaining will change anything, and I rather enjoy it (most days). I bring it up only to note that I have about three or four hours at night, after the boys have gone to bed, to myself. It’s only during these precious few hours that I can concentrate on me at all, and by that time I’m usually too worn out to do much of anything except watch TV, play video games, and read.
I am reminded of being on an airplane and receiving the safety lecture before take-off. If you’ve never had the unique pleasure of sailing through the skies in a giant aluminum Tylenol, one particular element of this presentation involves the oxygen masks which drop from the ceiling in the event of a loss of cabin pressure.** The steward or stewardess (flight attendants, even) instruct you to put on your own mask first before assisting others. Similarly, when studying life-saving techniques around the water, you are told not to go into the water to help someone who might be drowning, but instead to use tethered floatation devices whenever possible and to only enter the water as a last resort. The logic underlying these instructions is apparent, if not to a parent. You cannot help others if you, yourself, are in need of help.
Now, of course, most parenting situations don’t involve life-or-death choices, save the odd case of a kid running out into a street or trying to see how many nickels he can eat. But the logic extends further than these. If we, as parents, are neglectful of our own needs, in time, we will be in danger. Again, this is not necessarily a physical danger, but the danger of losing our identities. I know that, if asked to describe myself to others, I am already in a state where the first thing I offer is that I’m a stay-at-home dad. I have assumed that identity, and I have used it as a replacement for my own. This is unhealthy and unsustainable, but there it is.
NASA famously used a certain personality test as part of its screening for potential astronauts. Part of the test was this prompt: Complete the sentence, “I am a ____” 100 times. The extent to which one has to know oneself is truly astounding. The first half-dozen are pretty easy — I am a man, I am a husband, I am a father, I am a musician, I am a red-head, I am a Catholic, and on and on. I came up with about 25 responses before I realized I wouldn’t be going to the moon. By the by, for the folks who actually finished this test, holy crap. Anyway, most of us spend our teens and 20s figuring out who we are. It’s natural, normal, and universal. And yet, as soon as we start to zero in on that target, our biological clocks start ticking very loudly and cause us to bring into the world little monsters who upend and subvert everything we thought we knew about ourselves.
I suppose there’s an argument to be made that having children is less a way to challenge who you are than it is a crucible by which we purify ourselves, burning away those things we don’t wish to pass on to a future generation of self-seekers. If this is true, and I think it does have credence, then the enterprise of child-rearing is integral to the human experience, or at least to our growth as people. Self-examination is tough because you only see things from the inside-out. Children are mirrors, though, by which we can see ourselves most plainly. We see all our faults and failures, our broken dreams and broken promises, and those hopes we still haven’t managed to compromise or kill. The enormity of the burden we place on our children staggers.
So with these sweet devils that consume our time and our energy with a limitless appetite, we further devote our very selves. So, when one parent offers a story or some advice, is she really extending a portion of her identity out for validation? And when our own experience runs contrary to this new model, how then does our own identity respond? I don’t have answers to these questions,*** because the answers are as unique as every parent and child. But because of that, one parent offering (unsolicited) advice to another is meaningless. Doesn’t really stop us, though.
This post has been a little heavier than most. For levity, here’s a horse wearing a hat.
*But let’s face it, parents — we don’t usually share the stories about our kids struggling, unless we look like better parents for overcoming whatever challenges we face.
**From my limited understanding of body chemistry, inhaling pure oxygen (which the stuff supposedly is) would make you as high as a paper kite. I think this is probably just to make your last moments as stress-free as possible before your plane implants itself in the Ozarks.
***If I did, I wouldn’t be driving a ten-year old car, I know that.